Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
art, Germany, Life in Berlin, people, politics

Weekend Trips from Berlin: documenta14 in Kassel

Kassel is a 3-4 hour train ride from Berlin. It is a strange mix of regal buildings and monuments from its time as a princely residence, and bland concrete.

In the town’s main square, fountains arch hopefully into the sky only to land directly into to drains a couple of metres away. However, the small town is most notable for documenta, a contemporary art exhibition which takes over its galleries, museums and public spaces for a period of 100 days every five years.

Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire
Máret Ánne Sara, Pile o’ Sápmi (2017) Curtain made from reindeer skulls and metal wire

After I had exhausted my two-day exhibition ticket, I visited the marble bath, where the tour guide asked me if I had enjoyed documenta 14. I said I had, very much.

“Gut,” she said, surprised. “Alle meckern.” (Everyone’s complaining.)

And she’s right. Everyone is complaining. The well-known writer Moritz von Uslar went so far as to tweet that he found the Zeit’s weekly journalists meeting more inspiring than anything he experienced at this year’s documenta. Here’s the thing: He is wrong.

different perspectives: documenta14This year’s documenta was surprising, wonderfully curated and impactful. For this first time this year, the art exhibition was split between two locations: Athens and Kassel, acknowledging the two different sides of Europe, one destitute, one rich, one central, and one at its southern edge that deals with a stream of migrants from the Middle East and Northern Africa.

And it was this alternative, disorientating, multi-sided view of Europe that dominated the exhibition. For example, Janine Antoni’s wonderful Slumber posits the idea that the fabled adventures of Ulysses had perhaps all taken place in  Penelope’s dreams. The Sámi artist Máret Ánne Sara presented us with an alternative perspective of Norwegian history, and Gordon Hookey hit us with a big, bold, political statement about Aboriginal people and Australia.

Altogether, the exhibition was political, unapologetic, anti-neo-libralist, and anti-capitalist. Probably, exactly, the kind of thing a white, German man like von Uslar, who is primarily interested in other white, German men didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, or whatever.

I found that looking at art for a couple of days was nourishing. The fresh and interesting ideas, the visual and cerebral excitement, the new perspectives and experiences you engage in, if you are open to it, makes you look at everything in a new way. At one point, me, and the entire group of people I was with, all stopped to look at this lamp fixture on the side of a building. Wasn’t it weird?

fascinating lamp fixture kassel
Fascinating lamp fixture

Artists and their works only do half the job, you have to meet them half way. Obviously, not everything is for everyone, but to call an entire, massive exhibition uninspiring and to rubbish the work and ideas of some of the most exciting contemporary artists in the world in one tweet reveals more about the tweeter than about his subject.

Documenta14 is on until 17th September 2017 in Kassel.

 

Advertisements
Shop selling fireworks in Berlin for New Year's Eve
Berlin, Germany, Humour, Life in Berlin

Why the Germans turn into werewolves on New Year’s Eve

Over the last few days, firecrackers and rockets have been filling the air with smoke and the smell of gunpowder. As usual, the Germans have been getting warmed up for New Year’s Eve — the one night of the year when they go completely crazy.

Shop selling fireworks in Berlin for New Year's Eve
After my first New Year’s Eve in Berlin, I bought my first ever fire extinguisher — and I have been the proud owner of one ever since. For there is only one word for what takes place here on New Year’s Eve: Carnage.

People ignite batteries on the streets, throw rockets off balconies and firecrackers into bins and trams. This recording of a New Year’s Eve drive through Berlin that went viral last year illustrates the madness:

Amidst all the noise and confusion, you’ll sometimes hear a dog barking its head off as if trying to figure out what on earth possessed the humans. I, too, ponder a similar question every year: What happens to the Germans on New Year’s Eve?

Among expats, the common joke is of course that the Germans haven’t started a war in a while, so they need to blow things up once a year. I don’t buy that explanation, but maybe someone from Germany’s Ministry of Economy should look into it, because it might just be cheaper to have an actual war than to carry on like this. This year, the Germans spent 15o million on explosives. New Year’s celebrations usually result in around 12,000 fires and more than 30 million euros worth of damage to cars, houses and other property. Last year, in Berlin alone, the fire brigade responded to 1500 emergency calls. The night always ends in countless injuries and even deaths.

Just recently, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) proposed banning fireworks in Stuttgart altogether. Clearly, we have a problem when even the far right party of Germany thinks that things have gone too far. Another attempt to get things under control came from Klinikum Dortmund, a German hospital that publicised an image of a mangled hand resulting from a firecracker accident on Wednesday. I doubt this will change anything, however, because New Year’s Eve is to Germans what the full moon is to werewolves.

For most of the year, the Germans are busy wearing sensible shoes, putting their rubbish into the correct bins and following rules and regulations. Everyone is just so efficient and responsible and good. And then, on New Year’s Eve, they completely transform.

Take for example, the environment – something the Germans are usually very concerned about. On New Year’s Eve, the sheer number of fireworks let off makes January 1st is the most polluted day of the year. Or safety — if you try crossing the road when the pedestrian light is red, about ten people will point out your error and tell you that you are setting a bad example for children. But on New Year’s Eve, drunk parents will hold lit fireworks in their hands while standing next to their children without a second thought for safety.

Clearly, the Germans repress their wild sides for the entire year to such an extent that it eventually has to break out in a terrible way. They are like those children with very strict parents who at some point go completely wild. The best solution would be for everyone to just let loose a little at regular intervals throughout 2017…maybe go out in the rain without a waterproof coat, be a few minutes late for an appointment, chuck some brown glass in the white glass bin, jaywalk, go crazy.

Berlin, Germany, Life in Berlin, politics

A #Brexit Playlist

Stunned. There’s nothing else to say about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. For the past few months, I’ve been reassuring everyone the Brexit wouldn’t happen. I mean, us Brits like to complain, but we’re not complete morons.

It turns out that we are, proving that a) people are stew-pid-er than you think, and b) there is an Abba song for every situation.

Here is your Brexit playlist – or playlists, a separate one for Britain and Europe, since that’s the way it’s going to be…

Britain:

Crazy by Gnarls Barkly

Knowing me, Knowing You by Abba

London Calling by The Clash

The End by The Doors

Europe:

Take A Chance On Me by Abba

If You Leave Me Now by Chicago

Rolling in the Deep by Adele

I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

What wold be on your Brexit playlist? Post any ideas below!

Berlin, Germany, history, Life in Berlin, News, politics

Pegida

Icky as it is, I’m going to have to touch the whole Pegida thing because I saw this BBC video yesterday, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

Unless you’ve been living in a vacuum for the last few months, you’ll know that Pegida, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (so wordy!), is a new movement that has been holding weekly marches in major German cities.

The group claims not to be racist or xenophobic, but like all “I’m not a racist but…” statements, there’s nothing not-racist about it.

Surprisingly, many people have turned out in support of Pegida. On Monday, about 18.000 people took to the streets of Dresden, while around 4,000 people joined a counter-demonstration. The group has not been as successful in other cities such as Berlin, where Pegida opponents outnumbered supporters.

The first guy in the video was predictable; “Germany for Germans” is a phrase you’d expect to hear at one of these things, along with the ‘no mosques’ stuff. Of course, he neglected to tackle details like how exactly one defines a German. Is it a race? What if you are of Vietnamese origin but have a German passport? What if you German but have converted to Islam? What if you are Turkish but support Germany in the World Cup? And what about that CDU politician who does a good job of pretending to be German, but with a name like David McAllister, has to be Scottish?

And what happens when all the non-Germans leave? The country would shrivel up and die – literally. Germany’s aging population means that the meagre working population would collapse trying to support all the pensioners. In fact, immigration is the only sensible way out of this problem. And what about Germans elsewhere? You can’t swing a cat in London without hitting one – should we gather them up and send them, kicking and screaming, back to the Fatherland?

I recently visited The British Museum’s Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition (visited by Merkel today), which illustrates that defining Germany is a shifty business too. The German Nation was originally an idea, consisting of many different territories and peoples, ranging from Austria and the Czech Republic to parts of Romania. Clearly, the mapped boundaries of Germany were questionable to Hitler, who figured that Poland was part of German territory. By reverse logic, should Germany accept Polish, Czech and Romanian immigrants?

And about the mosques – should the constitution upon which modern Germany is founded, which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religious discrimination, be re-written? Anyway, I’m sure the nice man has thought it all through. He’s grand. What stunned me was the woman talking about her four daughters with long blonde hair.

It reminded me of a propaganda photograph I saw at the Topographie des Terror in which a Jewish man who had a Christian girlfriend was forced to hold a sign saying he raped a Christian girl.

The idea of the purity of one’s women being polluted by outsiders is a primitive narrative. It is the oldest fear-mongering tactic in the book. It was used in the United States to justify lynchings in the South and now, in Germany, it is toppling out of an articulate woman’s mouth – without any shame or awareness of what she is actually saying.

So why the rise of Pegida? It could be down to timing; Germany’ s recent intake of more immigrants than ever before coupled with sufficient time passing since the war might mean that people no longer feel there is a stigma attached to marching in the streets, waving German flags and expressing such views.

In theory, the Germany was supposed to be ‘de-Nazified’ after the war, but a look at Topographie des Terror exhibition demonstrates that this was not the case; judges, politicians, and civil servants remained in their positions for the most part, and there was a real reluctance to dig up the past and prosecute war criminals.

Now, these buried views appear to be resurfacing. Pegida is attracting a mix of people of all ages, from right-wing activists to ‘normal’ citizens, and a recent poll of just over 1,000 people by Stern magazine found that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Islam march if Pegida organised one near their home.

What do you think about Germany’s Pegida phenomenon?

Germany, history, Humour, Life in Berlin, politics

The German State and the Church (with Father Ted)

The Bavarian and I recently visited his hometown (well, village) to attend his nephew’s christening.

During the service, he dug a sweet wrapper out of his coat pocket and tossed it onto the pew, hissed into my ear about how fat the priest was (the priest was thin), complained about how stingy the Catholics were (the church was not heated) and muttered “useless little beggars” as he passed the priest’s helpers on his way out (they were holding contribution baskets).

Clearly, The Bavarian has issues with the church. Rather than attributing this to his usual irrational eccentricity, I’m putting it down to the unique relationship between the German state and the church.

IMG_3003Despite Europe’s secular values, Germany remains closely entwined with the church.

In fact, if Turkey were as non-secular as Germany, there would be no question of it even being considered for EU membership.

The German State currently pays about half-a-billion euros per year to the church as a result of 200-year-old contracts drawn up during German mediatisation – a series of property transfers from the church to the state that took place between 1795 and 1814. That’s half a billion euros of everyone’s taxes – whether they are Catholics, Protestants, atheists or Jedi, at a time when Europe is in financial crisis and Germany is pushing for austerity and a balanced budget.

On top of that, the German state subsidises bishops wages, priest’s salaries, events such as Kirchentage (church congresses), church-run kindergartens, schools, hospitals, care homes, the maintenance of religious buildings – the list goes on, and it adds up to billions.

The church runs so many institutions (schools, hospitals etc) in Germany that it is the country’s second largest employer after the public sector.

As if all this wasn’t enough, when you register yourself as a resident in Germany, you are asked to state your religion. If you answer with ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, you are promptly charged again in the form of church-tax (Kirchensteuer). In classic German form, when an American friend said he was ‘Southern Baptist’, the box marked ‘cult’ was ticked. He was offended, until he realised that this exempted him from paying the additional tax.

Church-tax is calculated at 8% or 9% of your income tax (depending on what state you live in) – no small amount – thereby provoking many people to leave the church upon receiving their first pay cheque – a privilege for which they must of course pay an administration fee.

In July 2008, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany ruled that charging a fee for leaving the church was an infringement of religious liberty – but most German states still charge (between €10-60). In Berlin, it’s free, causing the church to complain that the city is positively urging members to drop like flies.

If anything is making people leave though, it’s this whole church-tax business itself. When you see a significant amount of your pay being taken away, you start questioning your beliefs and whether you really want to belong to the church.

Also, the binding of money with religion seems crude. After all, wasn’t it the Catholics trying to sell places in heaven that incensed Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door, causing one of the biggest schisms in Western Christianity? Have they learned nothing?!

And on a spiritual level, can one really leave the church via bureaucratic means? I thought Catholics had to be ex-communicated by the pope himself, like Henry VIII.

I know a woman in Ireland who wanted to officially leave the church to demonstrate her outrage following the child-abuse scandal – she was still writing letters to Brussels a year later. It’s almost impossible for the Irish to leave the church (she eventually did it), unless they move to Germany, in which case they just need to fill out some paperwork.

The Bavarian was the first person in his family to leave the church. He waited till he was far away from his village so as not to embarrass his mother. However, his glee was cut short, because soon afterwards, the Protestants started charging him church-tax. He was practically foaming at the mouth when he wrote to them saying that he was not nor ever had been a Protestant. The response he received said he had to prove it. This would have been tricky if he hadn’t recently left the Catholics, which was proof enough that he would never go near the Protestants – but the system does sometimes prove Kafkaesque.

What is especially opaque is the question of where all the money goes. Despite being financed by German taxpayers, the church is not obliged to disclose its spending – and it doesn’t. The bureaucracy is clueless as to how much real estate the church owns in this country, even though it’s one of Germany’s biggest property owners. For any other individual, corporation or body, this would be unthinkable.

What was revealed earlier this year is that the Bishop of Limburg spent over 10 million euros on his private residence alone – who knows what other skeletons are clacking around in the church’s walk-in wardrobe.

Despite all this, people are still christening their children in the alpine villages of Bavaria. One aspect of this is faith, although I suspect The Bavarian’s sister does not really believe in the prospect of her child languishing in purgatory in the after-life. It didn’t seem like the right time to survey the congregation about the strength of their belief, but I suspect the conversation would have gone something like this:

So why the christening? Tradition. What The Bavarian’s wrath blinded him from was the warm sight of children lighting their Taufkerzen (baptismal candles) together. The ceremony was the chance for the family to unite in good faith, and then eat cake.

On the other hand, the desire to protect tradition supports a deep-rooted conservatism; a system in which doctors and nurses are afraid to leave the church or re-marry because it affects their job prospects in church-run hospitals, a patriarchal system (it was only yesterday that the first female bishop for the Church of England was named, which indicates just how behind they are – not to mention the Catholics), an unaccountable system (how is the money being spent?), a system under which The Bavarian was taught ‘religion’ in school by a priest who only covered Christianity (in London, we were taught about the five major religions by a person who had a degree in the subject), and a system which allowed the abuse of thousands of children.

The New Yorker’s recent, brilliant profile of Merkel pointed out that the current trend of German conservatism is keeping her in power (Merkel, as leader of the Christian Democratic Union, does not support any change regarding the relationship between church and state).

The need to keep status quo and fear of what will replace the Christian tradition prevails, but there are still other European traditions – enlightenment, humanism, democracy – to build on. Maybe it’s time more people left their crumpled sweet wrappers on the pews and walked away.

Germany, history, Literature

Vansittartism

Last Wednesday, I  learnt a new word that filled me with a mixture of glee and shame at Hans Vaget’s lecture Vansittartism Revisited. Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, and the Threat of World War III at The American Academy Berlin.

“Vansittartism” is a  Germanophobic doctrine, set out by former British foreign minister Lord Vansittart in his BBC radio addresses and book Black Record: Germans Past and Present (1941). It states that there is no difference between German leaders (at that time the Nazis) and the German people.

According to Vansittart, the Germans are characterised by “envy, self-pity and cruelty” and Nazism had “finally given expression to the blackness of the German soul”. He based his view on the fact that the Germans had been involved in five wars in the past 100 years (the three wars of German unification and the first and second world wars.) His analysis completely ignored the role of Austria, where Hitler was born and his views formed, (like the Austrians themselves, who in an act of collective amnesia forgot their Nazi past and blamed the Germans.)

As you can imagine, I was nudging the Bavarian with glee during this definition of his people. When I was young, I read Roald Dahl’s The Twits, and I think it is the book that has most defined my approach to marriage – a series of pranks and oneupmanships. The glee came tinged with shame, because Vansittart’s rhetoric is both ridiculous and racist. As Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil makes clear, peoples of every occupied country (except maybe the Danes) were complicit in the terrible crimes committed during WWII.

The lecture, however, provided food for thought. Vaget focussed on the reception of Vansittart’s ideas in the German exile community. Famously, it was a matter of contention between Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht in the USA. While Brecht dismissed Vansittartism completely (as a communist, he made a strong distinction between the German people and those in power), Mann was more ambivalent. His thoughts on Vansittart’s ideas varied at different times in his life, but the lecture proposed that overall, he took Vansittartism seriously and his view was closer to that Willy Brandt – at that time in exile in Sweden.

What is clear, however, is, notwithstanding the fact that Vansittartism is a racist product of the British Empire at war with Germany, the questions it raises – Why the Germans? How could a country that produced some of Europe’s greatest intellectuals be responsible for such barbarity? Who is to blame? – are still relevent.